Don Giovanni is surely the most enduring of Mozart’s operas, having been played continuously in some reincarnation or other ever since its 1787 première. With such a storied past, it is easy to think that the interpretive possibilities have been exhausted, but Theodor Strassberger’s Oslo production offers several intriguing, if at times slightly confusing, insights.

© Joerg Wiesner
© Joerg Wiesner

The production is set in what Strassberger in the programme notes terms a “mythological present”, a mix of what is clearly contemporary dress and modern technology, but with added 1960s-inspired dresses and headscarves. The contemporary fashions were reserved for the main characters, except Zerlina (and to an extent Masetto), creating even more of a divide between the noble characters and the common ones. A giant pile of various religious objects dominated the right third of the stage: statues of the Virgin Mary, a confessional, and variously sized crosses, complete with garishly coloured neon light outlines all thrown together in a heap. The remaining two thirds consisted of a balconied grey wall, a sobering contrast to the brightly coloured religious paraphernalia.

The production explores contemporary society’s attitudes to religion, with the overarching theme of the increasing commercialisation and cheapening of religion, that religious ceremonies have lost much of their symbolic resonance and are now seemingly done only for the sake of tradition. Zerlina and Masetto’s wedding in Act I is perhaps the prime example of this. The chorus aren’t wedding guests, at least not guests at Zerlina and Masetto’s wedding, but other wedding parties all standing in line to be officiated, the brides wearing increasingly garish sequined dresses. Similarly, the burial of the Commendatore seems to be nothing more than a solemn procession, a few tears, and then back to business as usual. It’s a bit sad in the moment, but it soon passes. Still, religion plays a part in the characters’ lives: Leporello is shown praying several times, and even has a cross tattooed on his chest, but even he seems to only care about religion when he absolutely needs it.

Nina Gravrok (Donna Elvira), Marius Roth Christensen (Don Ottavio) & Ann-Helen Moen (Donna Anna) © Joerg Wiesner
Nina Gravrok (Donna Elvira), Marius Roth Christensen (Don Ottavio) & Ann-Helen Moen (Donna Anna)
© Joerg Wiesner

Perhaps the most surprising change in this production is that Don Giovanni doesn’t seem to actually kill the Commendatore: the Commendatore was instead shown to slip and fall. While this angle certainly is a fascinating one, Strassberger did not seem overly concerned with exploring the potential of an (at least partly) innocent Don. Still, the Commendatore shows up at regular intervals, warning Don Giovanni of his imminent doom. The Commendatore is not, however, Don Giovanni’s downfall: throughout the penultimate scene, Don Ottavio is shown on top of the confessional, fervently praying, and for once takes matters into his own hands.

In general, the production had some fine vocal performances, especially from the leading ladies. Ann-Helen Moen’s Donna Anna was wonderfully sung, with gleaming high notes and a wonderful sense of phrasing. Especially impressive was her ability to hold the line in the almost surprisingly slow first section “Non mi dir”, followed by wonderfully clean coloratura in the fast section. Similarly great vocalism was given by Nina Gravrok’s Donna Elvira, with a large, agile voice, even though it lacked some power in the bottom register. However, both women’s performances suffered by a general lack of dramatic intent and characterisation. Caroline Christensen’s Zerlina was charmingly manipulative and well-sung, but at times rather static on stage.

Marius Roth Christensen (Don Ottavio) and Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (Don Giovanni) © Joerg Wiesner
Marius Roth Christensen (Don Ottavio) and Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (Don Giovanni)
© Joerg Wiesner

On the male side, the acting was quite good, but the singing all the more variable. Ilebrando D’Arcangelo is certainly one of the most experienced Don Giovannis in the business, and this experience showed, although his portrayal was vibrant and fresh. Even though Don Giovanni has little in the way of actual arias, D’Arcangelo made quite the impact through the recitatives and a commanding stage presence. Marcell Bakonyi’s Leporello was very well characterised, but his singing was often on the sharp side, especially in his higher register. He also had a tendency of being drowned out by the orchestra when he was singing upstage. While I would have liked more volume in the opening scene, Jens-Erik Aasbø’s Commendatore was one of great vocal power in the final scene. He was, however, made up to look quite young, much closer to Donna Anna’s age than that of her father. Aleksander Nohr’s Masetto was a wonderfully charming foil to Christensen’s Zerlina.

Antonio Fogliani led a brisk rendition of the opera, even though there were exceptions (most notably the surprisingly slow “Non mi dir”). I found some of the conducting rather directionless, lacking intent in the phrase, especially in the overture. There were also some unfortunate moments where ensembles were on the verge of unravelling.

Theodor Strassberger’s Don Giovanni offers a fresh, if sometimes confusing, take on an old classic. His ideas on society and religion are fascinatingly explored, and I’m sure I was not the only one walking out of the opera house with a different view on this opera of operas.

***11